BEVERLY — In the hours before he was killed in a Beverly park, James “J.P.” Vernazzaro was with three friends.
Or perhaps four.
He’d arrived at 4 p.m. and drank multiple beers. Or, 6:30 and had one.
And when he left, he was angry. Or, he was nervous.
Those are among the inconsistencies in the accounts of three people who were with Vernazzaro before he went to Balch Park to meet Sajan “Sage” Christensen and Adam Martin.
Christensen, 20, is on trial in Salem Superior Court on a charge of first-degree murder in Vernazzaro’s death on St. Patrick’s Day 2011. Martin, 19, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, the same deal offered to Christensen.
Instead, however, Christensen and his attorney, Ray Buso, hope to convince the jury of nine women and seven men that Vernazzaro, 26, was a bully who, drunk and angry that Christensen’s former girlfriend, Melissa Hicks, then 17, wouldn’t come over to his house, picked a fight with the defendants, 17 and 18 at the time.
Prosecutors Kristen Buxton and John Brennan say the confrontation was an “ambush” instigated by Christensen.
To that end, Buxton questioned Vernazzaro’s friend Joseph Thomas, who said Vernazzaro received 20 to 30 phone calls while at his apartment that evening.
Buxton sought to elicit testimony that showed that Vernazzaro was hounded into the confrontation.
“It was blowing up,” Thomas, 26, of Beverly, told jurors. “They kept calling and calling and calling until he would answer.”
Another witness, Thomas’ former girlfriend Brittany Dove, 23, said she also recalled the phone calls. “He was getting angry on the phone and yelling,” she testified. “He just seemed very bothered by the whole situation. I remember he said he was probably going to go fight somebody.”
But under questioning by Buso, Dove went further, saying she told Vernazzaro not to go. “They’re little kids,” she said she told Vernazzaro.